Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 6, 1971

The Process Of Campbell's Change — VII.

Colly Caldwell

The opposition of Alexander Campbell to the institutionalization of churches in his day changed to support between the years 1831 and 1849. The process of that change began with compromise and inconsistency. He taught that support for extra-congregational societies was wrong and at the same time joined a society doing the very things he objected to. He argued that this society was doing much good and therefore should be allowed to exist.

His next step was an acceptance of the assumption that churches may pool their resources (or a part of them) in district associations or meetings designed to oversee work for all its member churches. He, thus, left the Bible doctrine of local church autonomy.

And then he argued that the whole question was just a matter of "how" the work should be done. This is the argument on expediency and is easily seen to be untrue when one honestly understands that the society was not a "method" of doing church work but another organization doing that work.

First Reaction

Campbell's newly presented views brought an immediate reaction from his readers. One called the editor's proposal "an association in embryo," and added that from "such a beginning . . . the many-headed monster (Roman Catholicism, cc) grew."1 Another urged readers to oppose Campbell's "cooperation scheme," and to look with apprehension upon all representative bodies. The church, he said, is "all-sufficient," and is the only institution authorized by God to fulfill the purposes being assigned to the cooperative meetings.2 Another correspondent, who signed his letter "Epaphras," took Campbell to task for his inconsistency:

"You have leveled pretty unsparingly at a hireling ministry, and at what are called the benevolent institutions of the day. . . . Now, sir, although you may think from certain exceptions, concessions you have sometimes made when speaking of these things, that you cannot be fairly understood to object to them all, or, indeed, to any of them, without exception; yet, I can assure you, that you are almost universally understood so to do."3 Campbell argued in reply that he was not being inconsistent. He had never objected to the work or organization of benevolent enterprises, he said, but only to their "eternal echo of the word, Money."4 When the student reads Campbell's Christian Baptist, he finds Campbell's defense here obviously untrue.

The Individual And The Church

Campbell continued by saying that he chose to allow each Christian to make up his own mind as to whether these institutions were scriptural and act in a manner consistent with his own feelings.5 He gave considerable publicity to a letter written by one follower who stated that the relationship between an individual Christian and the congregation is as the relationship between member parts of the physical body. Whatever Christians do, he said, is done by the whole body.6 The universal character of the church, Campbell added, is not as one congregation, but is composed of many individual congregations. The individual congregations, he wrote, must cooperate by joint labor if the church as a whole is to accomplish its mission.7 Campbell obviously joined the correspondent in the view that any level of activity, individual, congregational, consociational, or universal, is only the church at work.

There are several things wrong with Campbell's reasoning at this stage: it confuses the church considered in the general sense with the church in the local sense; it confuses the church with the individual Christian; and it assumes that the church may operate in a consociational (or district) sense.

There is a definite distinction made in the New Testament between the word "church" used in the general or universal sense (Heb. 12:23; Matt. 16:18-19; Eph. 5:25), and the word "church" used in the localized sense (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 1:1). The key is always in the context of the passage in which the word is used. Immediately to be observed is the fact that there is but one "church" universal (general), but there are many "churches" local (Rom. 16:16). One is added to the church universal (Acts 2:41, 47) but he must join himself to the local church (Acts 9:26). The church universal began on Pentecost but the local church begins at that time when men who are members of the general body of Christ join themselves together and agree to work together in a particular place. The church universal has no earthly organization at all, but the local congregation is under the oversight of the elders. More to the point, the universal church is not authorized to collectively pool its resources and sponsor programs of work, while the local congregation must do so to accomplish its mission (I Cor. 16:1-2; et al.)

There is also a definite distinction made in the New Testament between the church (universal or local) and the individual Christian. Paul attests to that fact by saying that while the body has many members and is made up of those members, it is "not one member" (I Cor. 12:14). That is true by definition. The word "church" is a collective noun, like the word "herd" and "flock." A herd is made of cows, but one cow is not a herd. Sheep make up a flock, but one lamb is not a flock. The church is made of Christians, but it is not one Christian. Since it is a collective noun, it can only act collectively. When one member does something good as a Christian that is no more the church doing good, than it is the church doing evil when one of its members commits sin.

This brings us to another misconception held by Campbell. The church universal is not made up of local churches. The church universal, like the church local, is made up of Christians, individuals. The Ethiopian Eunuch was not a member of any local congregation when he had obeyed the Gospel, neither did he constitute a local church by himself. But he was a member of the church universal having been added to the body by the Lord. Every Christian is a member of the church universal. The church universal is made up of all Christians. Local congregations (churches) are made up of those Christians who agree to work together in a particular place. When that local church functions, it is not functioning for the church universal. When one of its members gives the cup of cold water, that is neither the church local nor the church universal functioning collectively.


By the end of 1832, Campbell's system for the cooperation of congregations in evangelism (external affairs) had crystallized. During the next few years, he urged its universal acceptance. If Christians refused to cooperate, he said in March, 1835, they should not be called upon to pray in public. He ridiculed those who were fastidious about inter-congregational organization and who looked for a pattern like that given to Moses for the building of the tabernacle. He claimed that there was no such pattern for the organization through which the New Testament church was to do the work of evangelism.8

No Required Pattern

To further this idea that there is no New Testament pattern for the organization through which the church must work, Campbell presented in another article a "parable" on the Rothschild family. The Rothschild's by reason of their wealth had a vast influence over financial affairs in Europe. Each member of the family was in a different country. They acted separately in many matters, but cooperated in the important business affairs which demanded the exercise of their combined financial power. If Christians, said Campbell, were as prudent as the Rothschild's, they would see that by cooperation they could use all "ways and means" of doing good.9 Again he used the words "ways and means" for organization, but the point here is that Campbell was admitting that God had not authorized the Rothschild's arrangement for the church. He was saying that Christians should use "good sense" rather than God's word and he was ridiculing those who believe that there is a pattern in the gospel which is wise to God and foolish to many men (Heb. 8:5; I Cor. 11:8-31).

No Need For Scriptural Authority

In July, 1836, an editorial written by Robert Richardson, another associate editor, abandoned the demand for specific scriptural authority on the question of church cooperation. Both Campbell and his father had strictly adhered to the theme, "Where the Bible is silent, we are silent." In the editorial, which was a reply to a letter from T. M. Henley on cooperation, Richardson said, "A thing may be unscriptural, but it does not therefore follow that it is anti-scriptural 10. Campbell did not question Richardson's statement in any way in the Harbinger.

Want It And Going To Have It

Campbell indicated that he was very much excited about what he thought would be the results of general cooperation. The efforts of scattered congregations are "feeble:' he said, compared to the concentrated power of "cooperative hosts."11 That others were not equally excited frustrated him. He said:

"We want cooperation. Some of our brethren are afraid of its power; others complain of its inefficiency. Still we go for cooperation; ... I have found a large class of men, professors too, who will sit for a year rather than rise up crooked .. ., they do nothing right lest they should do something wrong." 12


Campbell's influence in bringing the Disciples to an acceptance of the "cooperation system" of promoting missionary action was great. Accounts of district meetings and statewide gatherings in all sections of the country were recorded in The Millennial Harbinger after 1833.

The Process Of Change

Now we must look at the progression of Campbell's turn to liberalism which resulted in the creation of the Christian Church and separating it from churches of Christ. We will see more issues which had to do with this separation and take a look at the separation itself, but this change on the subject of additional institutions and organizations other than the church was the beginning of the process of denominationalism:

1. He compromised with that against which he preached. While claiming to believe in the all-sufficiency of the church, he supported another organization.

2. He argued that because the organization he supported was doing good, it must be alright.

3. He misapplied scripture to argue something a proper application of scripture would not allow.

4. He left the Bible doctrine of congregational autonomy.

5. He argued that supporting other organizations is just a matter of expediency.

6. He confused the individual and the church.

7. He thought the church could function universally on earth by forming larger organization than the local congregation.

8. He ridiculed those who disagreed and would have no real fellowship with them.

9. He left the demand for scriptural authority.

10. He said that there was no pattern for the work.

11. He said, we "want" it, we "go for" it, and so we are going to have it.

Now that sounds very familiar. Some very honest brethren have been taken in to the liberal camp and are now being forced to accept all kinds of innovations because they compromised in the beginning out of sentiment for little orphans or the need for world evangelism. Now they are forced to follow the course of digression. "Come ye out from among them and be ye separate saith the Lord."

Footnotes 1 MH, III (May 2, 1832), 201-02.

2 IBID.; MH, III (June 7, 1832), 244-50.

3 MH III (December 3, 1832), 612-14.

4 ME III (December 3, 1832), 614-17.


6 MH, III (August 6, 1832), 381-87.

7 MH, V (July, 1843), 314-17.

8 MH, VI (March, 1835), 120-23.

9 MH, VI (March, 1835), 138.

10 MH, VII (July, 1836), 333-36.

11 MH, New Series, II (June, 1838), 267-73.